When a Woman Ascends the Stairs – Ho hum, another great Japanese movie about the miserable life of a woman/prostitute. The main character of this one, Keiko, played by the great Hideko Takemine, isn’t exactly a prostitute, but rather a bar hostess, whose job it is to be charming and entertaining to the male customers, but not actually sleep with them. She wants to open a bar of her own, but the economics of mid-century Japan make that extremely difficult for women, and director Mikio Naruse examines in great detail the complex maneuvers and moral compromises Keiko must go through to try to realize her dream. This is my first Naruse film, and he has an elegant visual style that isn’t as immediately idiosyncratic as his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, but is quite lovely nonetheless. The jazzy score is pretty great, as are supporting performances from big stars like Tatsuya Nakadai and Masayuki Mori (at least one of the Seven Samurai shows up as well). Despite its thematic similarity to many a Mizoguchi film, it feels completely fresh and modern, and more humane for the lightness of its touch and story construction relative to the more schematic Mizoguchis like Street of Shame or The Life of Oharu. The #6 film of 1960.
Midnight Mary – Loretta Young plays a poor orphan girl who gets mixed up with gangsters after spending three years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. One day, she meets rich lawyer Franchot Tone (who continues to do no wrong in my eyes) who falls in love with her and tries to reform her. But when she’s recognized by a cop, she pretends she never loved him and goes back to the gangsters (after another little stint in jail). Eventually, the lead gangster tries to kill Tone and Young kills the gangster instead. This is all told in flashback as Young is awaiting sentencing for murder. This pre-Code William Wellman film is a solid bit of salacious melodrama and it is brisk and efficient in telling its wildly improbable, coincidence-driven story. That speed, and the excellent performances, make for a fine, if not revelatory, experience. The #16 film of 1933.
Mademoiselle Fifi – You know how John Ford’s Stagecoach is actually based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant? Well, this is based on the same story, along with another of his short stories. A variety of characters are sharing a coach through Occupied France during the Franco-Prussian War. Each character represents a social type: nobility, businessmen and their wives, a political agitator, a priest and a laundress (played by the Cat Person herself, Simone Simon). When the coach stops in a town controlled by the German Army (led by the scary Lieutenant with the title nickname), everyone eats with and fraternizes with the Germans except the laundress, who sticks to her patriotism. The Germans won’t let them go until she changes her mind, leading to much in-fighting exposing the cowardice and avarice of the upper classes. The political message is inescapable, the film being made in 1944, and Simon makes a particularly appealing symbol of Nazi defiance, her halting delivery effectively expressing the laundress’ humility and hard-headed simplicity. Made at RKO under producer Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, it’s not as visually interesting as the films made there by Jacques Tourneur, but I suspect it would have been impossible for the Lewton unit to make an ugly movie. The #13, film of 1944.
Socrates – Another of Roberto Rossellini’s fascinating “History Films”, albeit one that did not make it into the recent Eclipse box set devoted to them (it’s available on Hulu). Like The Age of the Medici, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV and Cartesius, Socrates recreates in great detail the world of a major historical figure, in this case sticking close to the events of the Socratic Dialogues as recorded by his disciple Plato. In addition to various philosophical arguments, these follow the course of Socrates’s condemnation, trial and execution for the crime of corrupting the youth by trying to lead them away from the gods. Seems he has the audacity to point out that nobody knows anything, prove it by taking apart everyone else’s arguments, then claim to be no more knowledgable than they are. Socrates’s real crime was thus being passive-aggressive. Like the other History Films, Rossellini cuts out all the extraneous things that get in the way of the ideas and the story and the audience: acting, character, fancy directing, etc. That’s not to say the films are boring or ugly, on the contrary, every shot is carefully and classically framed, and Rossellini makes the most of his European TV-level budgets in terms of costume and set design and his actors are competent, if not emotive (they exist somewhere on the Robert Bresson end of the scale, though filtered through a few levels of dubbing). What is left in the end is the pure expression of information, and in submitting to that we experience a deeper, more engrossing involvement in the events on-screen. Not one that gives you emotional highs and lows, or that shocks and thrills you, but one that manages to create a sense of. . . well not really reality (it’s too obviously composed and performed for that) but of the actuality, almost tangibility of the ideas and the people (not characters) that espouse them. They tend to make all other historical films or biopics, which invariably alter history for the sake of melodrama and “plot”, look silly, if not outright imbecilic. The #5 film of 1971.
Midnight in Paris – A much more playful approach to history, from a director who, with a few exceptions, enjoys the silly as much as anyone. Owen Wilson plays a writer with an obnoxious fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and obnoxious future in-laws. They’re all in Paris for some reason, and Wilson, wrapped up in the romance of the city finds himself transported back to the 1920s, where he hangs around with Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Salavador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Marion Cotillard. Wilson is a great avatar for Allen’s dialogue, his laid-back delivery making him seem like less of an impersonator than most of the actors who star in his films. The movie’s a great deal of fun, Allen’s most purely entertaining since Mighty Aphrodite (another film that mixed the past and the present to great effect) and its opening sequence, a montage of Parisian sites set to Sidney Bechet, is one of the loveliest sequences of his career (that it is an obvious homage to his own Manhattan makes it no less charming). The moral of the story is a bit forced, as Wilson learns that there’s wonder and romance at every time in history, if you know where to look for it (like used record stalls at flea markets, apparently, though this is wholly counter to my experience of such places). Things would have been more interesting if the McAdams character was the least bit sympathetic. As is, we have no doubt that Wilson is better off abandoning his life for the sake of supernatural adventures.